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Anne Frank In America
When the single most famous document to come out of the Holocaust was published in America half a century ago, it caused a sensation that made and ruined reputations and ignited furious arguments that resonate today
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
In June 1952 Doubleday & Company published the diary of a German teenager who had died in Bergen-Belsen approximately a month before the concentration camp was liberated, two months before her sixteenth birthday. The book was translated from the Dutch. In protest against the Nazis, who had hounded her family from Frankfurt and continued to harass them under the occupation in Amsterdam, the girl had refused to write or even speak German. The publisher’s expectations were modest. The war had ended only seven years earlier. People wanted to forget rather than remember. In a nation where hotels, country clubs, and other establishments were openly restricted against Jews, and jobs and college admissions were more subtly withheld or doled out by quota, the Nazi solution to the “Jewish problem” (the term Holocaust would not come into vogue until the sixties) might lead to unsavory and unsettling comparisons. And how many readers would fork over three dollars for the musings of an adolescent girl hiding in an Amsterdam attic when millions had died and entire countries had gone up in flames?
Even in the Netherlands, the diary had gone begging for a publisher until an eminent historian praised it on the front page of a leading newspaper. The reaction to the German edition had been, not surprisingly, lukewarm. Five publishing houses in Britain and nine in the United States had turned down the manuscript. But a few American editors had seen promise, and profits. Once out in the Netherlands, the book had garnered superb reviews and sold 25,000 copies. A French edition in 1950 inspired Janet Planner to write in her “Letter From Paris” column in The New Yorker of a “slight but remarkable” book by “a precocious, talented little Frankfurt Jewess.” After initially dismissing the diary as “a kid’s book by a kid,” Double-day had bought the rights from Otto Frank, the dead girl’s father; changed the title from Het Achterhuis , which translates as “the house behind,” to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl ; persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt to write a preface, or at least put her name to one penned by Barbara Zimmerman, a junior editor and early champion of the book; and ordered a first printing of 5,000 copies, a respectable number, if not one for the bestseller lists.
Sixty years after Anne Frank’s death, critics continue to argue over the meaning and message of her words.
Two years earlier, in the summer of 1950, an American writer living on the CÔte d’Azur had read the French edition of the diary. A man with a towering social conscience and a roiling sense of his own Jewishness, Meyer Levin felt as if he had been struck by lightning. As a correspondent with the Ninth Air Force and the Fourth Armored Division, he had witnessed the rows of stacked bodies and the emaciated, dehumanized survivors in the recently liberated camps, and he burned to tell the world of “the greatest systematic mass murder in the history of mankind.” But he realized that despite all he had seen, he was, as he put it, “a stranger to the experience” and thus not equipped, or perhaps not entitled, to tell the tale. From the first page of the diary, he would say later, he knew who the girl in the secret annex was.
Levin wrote to Otto Frank, the only survivor of the eight people who had gone into hiding in the dank apartment behind a warehouse and office overlooking a canal at 263 Prinsengracht, to inquire about American rights to the book and a play or movie to be made from it. When Frank replied that despite earlier rejections, he had interest from an American publisher and could not grant Levin the rights, Levin wrote back that his interest was not financial. He simply wanted to bring the diary to an American audience. After further negotiations between the two, the nature and details of which would become the substance of acrimonious lawsuits and public recriminations that dragged on for two decades, Doubleday published the book, and Levin gave it a rave on the first page of The New York Times Book Review . “Anne Frank’s diary,” he began, “is too tenderly intimate a book to be frozen with the label ’classic,’ and yet no lesser designation serves.” Though he had requested the assignment from the Times and subsequently asked for more space in which to give full rein to his enthusiasm, he did not mention to the editors that he had any connection with the book.
The review ran on Sunday, June 15, 1952. By Monday afternoon the entire first edition had sold out. Larger printings, newspaper syndication, book club rights, and advertising and publicity campaigns followed. Meanwhile, with the encouragement of Otto Frank, Levin continued to negotiate the dramatic rights with producers and labor on a script.